Recently I came across an online discussion about reaching out to experts when we authors need to learn more about a topic. I was amazed at how many people assumed that they have to pay someone for information. That has never been my experience.
In my research on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), I came across an article about the work done by a professor who reviewed the original environmental assessment. According to the author there were numerous points that “raised red flags.” Seriously? I can’t quote that. My editor will want to know what things. So I did the only thing I could.
I went online and searched for the professor’s name. I knew her university so I was able to verify that I had found the right person. I simply used the contact form on her website, identifying myself as a children’s nonfiction author writing on the DAPL. I included a link to my Amazon Author page so that she could see what I do and then I waited. In less than two days she e-mailed me back with her cell phone number.
The vast majority of people I contact, especially if they are faculty, researchers or park rangers are happy to share what they know. They’re excited at the thought of educating young readers. And, especially when the topic is difficult or controversial, they want to make sure that the information being circulated is accurate.
I have had some people react with a certain amount of suspicion if they think that I’m a journalist. Nope — children’s writer. Nonfiction writer. Once they understand that, they usually perk right up.
Reach out to those who are experts in your field. They can help you replace skewed information with accurate fact. They may even tell you about something so new you won’t find it in any other print source. All you have to do is find an expert who is willing to share.
I’m working on a new nonfiction topic and, as usual, I’ve picked a tough one. I say as usual because this is the second project I’ve done that features a large number of different animals. Last time it included octopus, flounder, bittern, zorilla and jaguar. This time, I’ve researched house flies, white-tailed deer, bull frogs and rats.
The problem with all of this animal research is trying to find accurate biology on either pest animals or game animals. Scientists research exotics but things closer to home aren’t as “sexy” and don’t draw as much attention. A lot of the information that I do find is anecdotal or what I lovingly call folksy. I need science with real research. I know that’s narrow minded of me but it seems to make my editors happy.
Sometimes I think I have enough information until I try to write. As I try to describe whatever process, I just can’t pull it together. That’s when I know I don’t have enough information. What to do?
- Do another search. Usually I’ve refined my knowledge and can come up with better key words by now but that doesn’t always mean that I can find additional articles. Still, I try.
- Look for a name. Whether I’ve found 2 articles or 10, if my knowledge is incomplete, I need to find more. I pull up the most helpful article and look for a name. Who wrote the article? Who did this person interview?
- Send an e-mail. If the author of the helpful article was the expert, that’s who I e-mail. If not, I look for people they might have interviewed. In my e-mail, I introduce myself as a children’s writer. “I’m not sure I understand this and I want to make sure that I don’t mislead my readers.”
- Wait. Once I’ve sent out the e-mail, it’s time to work on something else. If I haven’t heard from anyone in two or three days, I look for another person to contact but I’m always amazed by the number of busy researchers who want to teach kids about their topic.
Going to the experts is the best way for me to find the information that I need to create a clear explanation picture for my readers. Experts always know more than they’ve written. Fortunately, they are often more than willing to share.
Not long ago, I was working on a picture book set in a circus. My character attempted the trapeze — swinging back and forth and then tumbling into the net. When I took the book to critique group, I danced a happy dance when I saw that one particular member was there. He’s a member of the Circus Flora. Hurrah!
He praised my story to the heavens and then . . . paused. With a certain amount of effort on my part, he finally revealed that I had combined the two types of trapeze. I could do flying trapeze or I could have a net. Not both. He worried that he was being overly picky. But who else would have been able to tell me this? When I submitted the story to an agent, I was able to tell her that it has been vetted by a real live circus performer.
I’ve sought out horse experts, geologists and Sunday I touched base with a friend who was a competitive swimmer. These people and more make sure that I’m on the right track before an editor even sees my work.
Do you ever ask an expert to review your story before you submit it? Give the matter some serious thought the next time you are dealing with something outside your area of expertise. At best, you’ll find out you got the facts right. At worst, mistakes will be brought to your attention and you’ll have the chance to fix them before it goes to print. What do you have to lose?
For one of my articles, I’m reading biology texts on physiology and athletics. I’m not sure that I’m keeping things straight as I simplify them for a young audience. Fortunately, I know a physical therapist who is also a swim coach. He’s used to explaining why to both his patients and his students. Perfect.
Who else do I know that I can call on?
- an opera singer
- an archaeologist
- a cabinet maker
- a social worker
- a reading teacher
- a math tutor
- a civil engineer
- a glass blower
- a pottery maker
- a quilter
- an optometrist
When you need an expert, look around at the people you know.
But what do you do if you don’t know someone with the correct expertise?
Go online. Check museum staff, university faculty and the authors of primary articles. Then send an e-mail or get on the phone. I’m not going to say that I’ve never been turned down, but two academics I’ve never met have both been a huge help. Especially when you write for children, they want to help you get the facts straight.
Why not let them?